Thursday, June 14, 2007

There Goes the Neighborhood!

You may think, for a lover of coffee houses, there would be nothing worse than seeing a burgeoning neighborhood get its very own cafĂ©, only to have it turn out to be a complete and total bust. Denver is a city of vibrant neighborhoods, each one rife with an eclectic cast of characters, folks who not only deserve, but are practically begging for their very own gathering place; a destination that both caters to and reflects their unique eccentricities. When you have to sit idly by as your favorite haunts go under, it’s pretty annoying to watch an endless string of also-rans pop up all over the place.

There is, however, something worse than that for the coffee lover (especially one who occasionally catches himself daydreaming of owning his very own joint) – and that’s when that very same neighborhood gets a concurrent barrage of half-assed coffee shops, sausaged, one after the other, into the exact same location. One ill conceived independent gets bought out by a lazy franchisee is replaced by some Johnny-Come-Lately corporation. Wash, rinse, repeat. Yawn.

A few weeks ago, #1 son and I were heading up to Cheeseman for a day in the sun when I spotted a Capitol Hill cutie walking down the street with one of those brilliantly iconic/annoyingly loud Dazbog cups that said coffee company supplies to their many local accounts. Cool, I thought… maybe at long last some enterprising individual has come along to challenge Diedrichs default title of “Official Coffee Supplier of the Queen City Queens”. I couldn’t wait to visit this sparkling new utopia, with it’s mismatched couches, and charming baristas, and down-tempo house music thump thump thumping away into the wee hours of the morning

Imagine my disappointment when I looked up to see the Diedrich Coffee sign on the corner of 9th and Downing replaced with a crookedly hung tarp reading (yeah, “duh”, I guess) “Dazbog Coffee”. Meaning, they aren’t just supplying the bean-juice, they are dictating to the hapless franchisee what kind of music gets played, what sort of art makes it onto walls, what color Dazbog logo’d tee-shirts the employees will wear, and what sort of drinks you can find on the menu (which means, presumably, you won’t be able to order a Mr. Brown and Kalua anytime soon).

In the past, I have unequivocally stated my support for the Dazbog brand. It’s just that, lately, they’ve been sprouting up locations all over town. Does anyone still think of this as a novel idea? Or even a potentially lucrative business plan? Does a city which has gone through Peaberry Coffee, Tuscany Coffee, Ink! Coffee, Caribou Coffee, Brio, Brothers Coffee, Diedrich Coffee, Coffee People, French Quarter Coffee Company, Perk and Pub, Gloria Jean’s Coffee Beans and Java City really need one more chain?

I suppose if some smart ass were to answer that completely rhetorical question with a “yes”, then the corner of 9th and Downing is as good a location for it as any. After all, that spot has a storied history, and serves as a graveyard for more than a few of the joints listed above.

See, once upon a time, back before Denver was the thriving, cultured metropolis that it is now, if you wanted a simple, decent cup of coffee - and you didn’t have an hour or two to kill while the waitress at Muddy’s or Paris poured it for you - you had precisely two choices; The Market, or Brio. Brio was an itty bitty chain that served drip coffee, espresso drinks, and one (1) kind of sandwich daily, which could not be customized, because it was pre-made in a commissary deep beneath the earth’s crust. But you didn’t care, because that one sandwich was one of the best sandwiches you could get within city limits. And Brio was good; the owners were smart enough to hire hipsters to man the locations, most of which sat in the bottom floors of office buildings where workers toiled away from 9 to 5 in their business casual.

The owners eventually sold all of their locations to the Boyer Brothers, who thought it would we be an ingenious idea to start a brand new chain of espresso bars - and viola! - Brothers Coffee was born (Their father Bill, owner of “Boyers Coffee”, sued his own sons for the use of his name, leaving his sons with their generic moniker). The brothers remodeled the store from late 80’s black and white deco into a wood grain motif, stuffed the staff into that denim shirt-and-tie combo that was so popular back in the mid-nineties, and basically drove the place straight into the ground. Their only real contribution to the Denver coffee scene was opening the shop across from Queen Soopers. The clientele affectionately referred to it as “Sister’s”.

After a few years, Diedrich Coffee acquired all of the Brothers locations, deciding it was high time to bring their popular SoCal brand to Colorado. I did my time at Brio, and at Brothers, and at Diedrich; and in that time I learned one very important thing - the people of Southern California love them some monumentally crappy coffee.

Ah, Diedrich. What can I possibly say about them that I haven’t alluded to many times before in this blog? Probably nothing, but it all bears repeating… Martin Diedrich is an egotistical, arrogant twirp of a little man, whose idea of coffee training is standing in front of a group of people for four hours, and telling them all about his “family crest”, which is emblazoned on every cup. The man spoke his own name with the hushed tones usually reserved for Hitler, or maybe Jesus. Yeah, yeah, their drip coffee was pretty good, but their espresso drinks were foul. If anyone has ever told you they got a halfway decent drink at Diedrich, it’s because their barista had at one time worked for a better shop. Or they had their sense of taste irreparably damaged due to a severe brain injury.

When the Diedrich plan to establish a new world order, on par with that of Starbucks (while always bemoaning the big green label in the same breath) fell through, they handed the reins over to a franchisee, one who also owned a few Burger Kings. Because, you know, the King knows coffee.

Under the direction of this new franchisee, the store fell further into disrepair, the service got worse, and the staff exhibited that sort of slacker anarchy that happens when the owners just stop caring and the clientele is far too entranced in their habit to go anyplace else.

Over the years, I’ve overheard many an entrepreneur muse about getting their hands on the 2 Diedrich locations that book-ended Cheeseman. And I’ve no doubt the reason none of them jumped on it was that they would have had to take a few of those old Brio locations off their hands, as well. So, now, we’ve got Dazbog.

And how do they fare? Well, credit where credit is due – the coffee I got there on a recent visit was 100% better than anything that’s come out of that location in the last 5 years – maybe even ever. I watched the barista pour a flawless shot of espresso into my red-eye, causing my mouth actually water (and to think, just a few years ago I heard Leonid say that automatic machines were the way of the future – for shame!). On another visit, when I asked to have my beans ground for a toddy maker, the barista didn’t even bat an eye, which was a refreshing change from the apoplectic fit that the average Diedrich employee would’ve had at the same request.

But how is Dazbog really different? Where does it truly distinguish itself from what’s come before? The truth is, it doesn’t; the signs on the wall are the same old humdrum advertisements, and the men’s room still looks it belongs in a New York City subway station (though to be fair, the prospect of cleaning it is more than a little intimidating – we used to have this regular that we called “The Naughty-Potty Man” who would go in there for an hour and… actually, just forget I brought it up.)

It’s funny though, go check out the comments section re:Diedrich Coffee at the Denver Coffee Blog. It’s proof positive that every coffee shop, no matter how pathetic, is somebody’s favorite. And every single owner, from Brother’s on, has had to deal with the complaints when change happens.

My advice for the new owner operator is this – get to know the Boyz in the Hood’. Get a new coat of paint on the walls. Ditch the Muzak. Maybe get yourself one of those hazmat suits and hose down the john.

And most of all, put your heart into it… maybe there’s still a chance to make it everybody’s favorite.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Muddy's Memories

Following my new policy of “Fresh Content on a (Semi) Regular Basis”, here’s a link to the page for a much-missed Denver institution.

I was always more of a Paris/St. Mark’s/Euphrates guy, but I definitely did my time sipping coffee amongst the books in Muddy’s ratty old loft.

Truly, they just don’t make ‘em like that anymore…

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Blockbuster Coffee!

So, this has been a pretty monumental year for me, what with the lay-off in January and the two new jobs since then. Earlier this week, I even interviewed for a possible third (I’m still in the early stages of that one, we’ll see what develops) I had my 10 year wedding anniversary in May, and in March, I officially entered my “mid-thirties”.

35 came with exactly no more and no less fanfare than I would’ve wanted. My advancing age isn’t something that’s bothered me much lately; as a matter of fact, for some reason the idea of 36 seems sort of dignified to me. Like its real, true adulthood - implying all the respect and experience therein (but then again, talk to me when I’m 40).

Oh, sure, there have been some little landmarks that are disorienting, if I allow myself to ponder them for too long. I totally outlived Jesus, for one. And If I lived in the 70’s style, futuristic dystopia of Logan’s Run, I would have been offed years ago. Not only that, but I’m two whole years older than Shatner was when he took the helm of the Enterprise. What seems strangest of all, though, is the fact that I’m no longer part of that coveted “18-34” male demographic that all of pop culture is said to be geared to.

My favorite birthday present this year was a Toddy brand iced coffee maker. Long time lurkers on my blog may recall my love of The Market’s iced coffee. They make theirs “Toddy Style”, and that’s where the Missus bought my 'maker from. It’s an entirely low tech affair; no electrical plug-ins or doodads. A pound worth of coarsely ground beans brew overnight in nine cups of cold water; the resulting, filtered concoction is a thick, pitch black concentrate, to which you add two parts water. That last part is of the utmost importance, and should be printed on the directions in ALL CAPS, italicized, and perhaps even be written in blood. Less a suggestion than a mandate, like “Don’t Feed the Mogwai After Midnight” or “Look Out! Swimming Pool Filled with Infected Hypodermic Needles!” Upon reading it, there should be an ominous thunderclap in the distance… you must make sure that you cut the stuff with a sufficient amount of H2O, and what ever you do - DO NOT drink the concentrate straight. It is dark. Potent. Intense. Like juice squeezed directly from Keith Richard’s right lung. It is an oily, shimmering, foreboding substance, like an alien life form that could crawl out of it’s carafe to bond to your body and take over your mind.

Speaking of which, I finally caught “Spiderman 3” last weekend. I’m sorry to say that it’s a mixed bag, at best. Maybe the way to go for Hollywood would be to have all of the movies top out at a duology; the trilogy thing too often ends badly. Spider-Man the Third doesn’t quite plumb the depths of stupidity mined by Superman III or Batman Forever, but neither is it as good as the good parts of Return of the Jedi. Remember Chewbacca’s groan-inducing “Tarzan Yell” at the climax? This whole movie is sort of like that - “cute”.

Sam Raimi seems to have decided that the success of the Spiderman series is less about watching 40+ years of comic book history played out on the big screen, and more about watching references to the first two movies (the upside down kiss, more flashbacks of Peter’s dead uncle, etc.). And really, can they come up with a climax that doesn’t involve putting Mary Jane in peril? I don’t care how google eyed, dodo yoohoo in love you are (and, oh, are they ever – yeeech), that would be the relationship breaker right there. If they make a fourth, they can just call it “Spider-Man 4: Sucks to be Your Girlfriend”, and it can be about Kristen Dunst and Bruce Campbell fighting off Zombie Uncle Ben.

Part of the problem for me was the whole “alien suit that turns you evil” subplot (or maybe that was the main plot and the other 15 plots were all “sub” – I had a hard time keeping up) The first time in my life I realized I was growing up was when they started the symbiote storyline in the comics. MY friendly neighborhood Spider-Man fought freaks of science localized here on Earth, like the Rhino, or Electro, or Hydro-Man, not other-worldly cosmic threats (because that would be, you know, unrealistic) He left all that stuff for the Fantastic Four or the X-Men. Seeing the previews, I begrudgingly accepted that this was the way they’d be going with the movie. Unfortunately, nothing could prepare me for the fact that Peter turning eeeevil would be illustrated by having Tobey Mcguire look like a coked-up Kyle Maclachlan in “Dreamgirls” and doing a dance number while Mary Jane sings in the background. Badly. (Stop giggling, folks who haven’t seen it yet – I’m Not Kidding.) If they really wanted to him to act evil, they should have just given him the straight Toddy concentrate – it’s called method acting, people. My proportions were a little off this morning, and I was like a paranoid schizophrenic.

The Peter vs. Harry stuff worked okay, and the finale was somewhat satisfying, if a little reminiscent of Ghostbusters (Man! Gremlins, Ghostbusters, Temple of Doom – second in a trilogy, I might add. 1984… now that was a year for summer movies). So of course, all this begs the question… is my enjoyment of this sort of thing diminished by my advancing years? Has my pop-tolerance been left behind, along with my membership in the “18-34” club? Is little Caff all grows up?

I sincerely doubt it. I think it has to do more with the fact that these gigantor budgeted movies are all micro-managed now, in order to appeal to the widest possible base. That means more Saved By the Bell-style flirting for Peter and MJ, and more heart to hearts with Aunt May. This morning, the two women I work with; women who talk about “Brad” and “Angelina” and “Rosie” with the same familiarity that multiple-cat owners use for their pets, were discussing how that new Fantastic Four movie looks “cute”.

Hear me now, world. If they screw up the Silver Surfer, I will go berserker… caffeinated or not.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Tales of the City...

I have a chip on my shoulder. Maybe more like a blemish. A growth, mutated from exposure to certain realities of my life the same way a melanoma develops from exposure to UV rays. I am a townie, a chronic local. I’ve lived in D-town long enough that to call myself anything other than a native makes all the transplanted Californians laugh out loud. Some other circumstances of my life would bother other folks more, were they to find themselves in my shoes. High school dropout? Never bothered me much. Barely a semester of film school, at dear ol’ Red Rocks Community College? I can live with that. Bi-weekly paychecks from a giant-sized, notoriously conservative media behemoth? Oooh, pangs of liberal guilt on that one; but hey - a brother gots to work somewhere.

But if I dwell too long on the fact that I’ve never slept on second hand lawn furniture in my very own basement efficiency apartment in Greenwich Village, suddenly I turn into James Stewart in “Vertigo” - you know that trademark Hitchcock shot, where he closes the camera in tight on his subject’s face, while he “zooms out” at the same time – resulting in that queasy optical effect? (what can I say, it was a very productive semester)

It’s not as though I’m pining for some Jungian “Heroes Quest”. Sure, I respect the drive to climb the highest mountain, in order to ask the old man at the top “what it’s all about”, or Cassie’s joining the Peace Corps in order to make the world a better place - but those things, I presume, come from someplace just south and to the left of your shoulder (Your heart, that is; or maybe your gut. Not your naughty bits). My own chip, though, was at one time just a simple, average sized, non-terminal wanderlust-gland, which, had I toured the hostels of Europe for a mere six weeks, would most likely have remained benign.

When I do have the opportunity to travel, what should be a simple romantic getaway with the love of my life takes on this mad, aimless urgency. I must peel beneath the simple facade set up for those accursed tourists, and truly grok whatever strange new land I find myself in.

And so it was in San Francisco, as the wife and I celebrated our tenth (!) anniversary. We consumed as much of the city as was humanly possible in our 5 short days; by streetcar; by trolley, through the ominous subway stations where George Lucas shot “THX-1138”.

(not me)

But most of all, we got by on foot - thanks to that glorious oxygen they keep so much of at sea level. I was there to dig it, man; to lose myself in the neighborhoods of Maupin’s “Tales of the City” and to find and embrace my inner hippy on Haight Ashbury.

The first thing I realized, once we got settled into our hotel, was that even the most legendary of coffee towns isn’t immune to the Starbucks virus. I figured that the corporation of choice would at least be the locally spawned Peet’s. Alas, we saw only one of those, awkwardly wedged into the Castro district. Little matter to me - I would be drinking my cappuccinos (my traditional “vacation beverage”) only in cafes where the disembodied spirits of Lawrence Ferlinghetti and his contemporaries floated freely.

Look at the Cafe Trieste website and you’ll discover that this small, unassuming joint was the first “Italian Style” coffeehouse on the west coast. Scooters – Vespas only, of course - are lined up against the curb outside. If you’re lucky enough to find a table on Sunday you can hear live opera being performed. If you’re lucky enough to go on the right Sunday, you may hear opera being performed by none other than Francis Ford Copalla (!) and family. Multiple pictures of Bill Cosby (!) adorn the walls, from his fighting-trim Chet Kincaid days to the thick-around-the-middle-late-Huxtable era. His celebrity affords him the ability, apparently, to walk behind the counter and whip up his own cappuccino. Sad to say, but I sort of wish he was there to make mine. Hidden beneath a modest layer of froth – more just “foam”, really – was a watery latte of no great consequence.

The next day we visited Haight Ashbury, where I was sure to not be disappointed - if for no other reason than lowered expectations. If I’ve learned anything in my half-a-lifetime of drinking coffee, it’s that, while college towns and hippy hotspots (Boulder, the “Ave” on the UW campus, etc.) feature no shortage of espresso bars and cafes, the coffee is usually nothing to blog about. But at least I would be in for some good people watching in a groovy atmosphere. “Rockin' Java” fit the bill nicely, decorated as it was in funky-junk modern and featuring the archetypal tattered couches. One barista saw that I was re-reading “Virtual Light”, and struck up some small talk about Gibson’s day after tomorrow vision of San Fran. However, the pleasantries were cut short when this overzealous Gestapo barista, one of those proud “assistant to the assistant manager” types, took issue with the Missus taking a few non-intrusive snapshots. Really, dude, even if we were from the Dunkin Donuts home office, planning a corporate takeover, I hardly think you’re gonna be the guy to stop us.

And again, my cappuccino was mediocre.

Now, I don’t want to give the wrong impression… we had a wonderful time. And San Fran is a pretty cool city. But really, I was noticing a theme, here. It’s taken me 35 years, but I’ve finally come to terms with the fact that I’m small-town. I imagine my naivetĂ© as being one of my charms, really. And when I go to a “big city”, especially one of those nigh-mythological coastal cities that visitors to Denver endlessly compare us to (always unfavorably, of course), I am prepared to accept nothing less than having my mind entirely and completely blown. Through my urethra. By a renegade army of socialist lesbian DJs from the future. (Or some other such anachronistic subculture).

Searching for just that sort of adventure, we took the F line to Castro. Here was the one place I wanted (and got) archaic certainties. Though it’s older, and wiser (and no doubt safer) Castro just feels like I imagine the pre-HIV 70’s and 80’s must have been. But still, if there was a kitschy and flamboyant coffee shop where drag queens served boys in short shorts and Doc. Martens (a la Big Cup in NYC) I didn’t find it.

But of course, caffeine wasn’t really why we were there; this was our one night of sheer unadulterated debauchery. We imbibed, of course, and here again there was a distinct lack of minds being blown. Or if there were any, it was theirs, not ours. Funny, we can go to any gay club in Denver to a general lack of comment; there, the assumption was that we must be mustachioed and candle burning swingers. And really, how was I supposed to know that to dance on top of the pool tables with the boys in golf shoes and tighty whites, you were supposed to be on the payroll? I figured in the great big city that sort of thing just sort of “happened” all the time - like harmonic convergence, or speaking in tongues at an old fashioned tent revival.

So after a few more less than stellar cappuccinos, a couple romantic walks through the town and one absolutely brilliant Italian meal later, we were back home. In the “real world” as I like to call it.

Driving home from a family day out, last weekend, we stumbled across a street fair happening on Larimer Square. Rainbow flags hung outside a few of the bars, there was visibly more Y chromosome going on than usual, and a DJ was spinning outside the Market. I’ve surfed the internets and I still haven’t been able to figure out what was going on; but to tell the truth, the music was better than anything we heard in SF. We danced in the street with the kids, way past their bedtime. I realized that, even though the wife and I have a lot more miles to cover over next ten years (and maybe some mustachioed and candle burning style-swinging, if I can break her down) it’s nice to know that I’m pretty content with where I’m at.